Ian Johnson

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People protesting China’s COVID-19 restrictions, Beijing, November 2022. Thomas Peter / Reuters

Over the past week, as more than a dozen cities have been engulfed by large protests, China has seemed more unsettled than at any previous point in Xi Jinping’s ten-year reign. By November 29, after a weekend in which people sometimes openly directed their ire at the country’s leadership, authorities had sent out a small army of police in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities to restore order, arrest protesters, and try to put the movement to rest. But as the government reasserts control, it must also now contend with the reality that large swaths of the general public have begun to question the wisdom not just of local officials but of Xi’s leadership in Beijing.…  Seguir leyendo »

China had a system. Then along came Xi

Every decade or so, China’s political system is wrenched by change. Some of these events are headline-grabbing – the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 or the brutal crushing of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in 1999.

Others are more subtle, such as the eruptions of 2012, when China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, took power. That year included the toppling of a major Communist Party leader, the disgrace of a senior political adviser and the revelations that the family of the country’s beloved premier accumulated billions in wealth during his tenure.

By contrast, this year seems quiet. There are reports that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is being challenged by his premier Li Keqiang, or that he is under pressure because people are fed up with the country’s relentless zero-Covid strategy.…  Seguir leyendo »

The war in Ukraine has prompted renewed appeals for China to get involved in an international crisis, with commentators discussing how the country is well-placed to negotiate an end to the fighting. Politicians have taken up the call too: the Ukrainian foreign minister reportedly asked China to get involved, while on Tuesday European leaders video-called Chinese leader Xi Jinping in an effort to keep him in the loop.

These ideas all make good sense -- but are likely to fail. That's because China, far from being able to act decisively on the world stage, suffers from a chronic leadership void that leaves it paralyzed to act in the face of global crises.…  Seguir leyendo »

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, during the opening session of U.S.-China talks in Anchorage on Thursday. The meeting, full of blunt remarks and harsh exchanges, fell short of even the low expectations that had been set for it. Credit Pool photo by Frederic J. Brown

Since taking office nearly two months ago, the Biden administration has been a whirlwind of activity in reforming and revisiting almost every key problem area but one: the chaotic and incoherent China policy it inherited from the Trump administration.

Top U.S. and Chinese officials met Thursday in Alaska for the first time since the new administration took power. The meeting, framed as little more than a chance for each side to state their well-known positions, fell short of even those low expectations.

In a series of blunt remarks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that the U.S. government had “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion toward our allies” — actions, he said, that “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability”.…  Seguir leyendo »

Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu/Getty Images Actors from the People’s Art Theater of Wuhan performing in a drama about medical staff fighting Covid-19 in Wuhan, September 2020

On January 31 I received a knock at the door of my Beijing apartment. It was the manager of lease renewals clutching a stack of flyers.

“Mr. Zhang, you’re feeling well?” she asked, using my Chinese surname.

“No fever yet.”

She laughed—foreigners and their comments.

“I know you don’t have the illness, but we want everyone to be safe. Here.” She handed me two copies of the flyer, one in Chinese and the other in English.

They were written by the Beijing municipal government and offered practical tips on how to protect oneself from the coronavirus. It had been eight days since the city of Wuhan had gone into full lockdown and seven since Beijing and other cities across China had declared a public health emergency.…  Seguir leyendo »

Kicked Out of China, and Other Real-Life Costs of a Geopolitical Meltdown

Soon after I was informed in mid-March that my journalist visa for China had been canceled, I faced a dilemma: what to do with my collection of wooden staffs used in a style of Chinese martial arts that I had been practicing for nearly 10 years.

Should I give them back to my master, an affable 40-year-old bus driver and inheritor of the practice, who had made it his life’s work to revive the stick fighting that had once been so common in Beijing’s working-class neighborhoods? Or should I have the movers ship them to London, where I would now be living?…  Seguir leyendo »

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images. A Chinese man and a child wearing protective masks on a bike, Beijing, China, March 27, 2020

BEROWRA CREEK, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was a terrible year for Australia, and in such dark times, humor helps us cope. The triple-whammy began with an apocalypse of smoke and fire. Megafires that created their own weather converged to become the most extensive conflagration ever recorded on any continent, destroying 20 percent of the nation’s forested land. They were finally extinguished in February—by deadly flooding. Then, as the floodwaters were still receding, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

I’m not a great reader of the Old Testament, but after our three plagues, I consulted Exodus on the nature of the fourth disaster inflicted on the ancient Egyptians.…  Seguir leyendo »

A woman offers joss sticks and prayers at the Lama Temple in central Beijing, a place of worship very popular with locals praying for wealth and good health. Credit Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos

In the northern suburbs of this city is a small temple to a Chinese folk deity, Lord Guan, a famous warrior deified more than a millennium ago. Renovated five years ago at the government’s expense, the temple is used by a group of retirees who run pilgrimages to a holy mountain, schoolchildren who come to learn traditional culture and a Taoist priest who preaches to wealthy urbanites about the traditional values of ancient China.

Perched atop a hillock overlooking the sprawling capital, the temple is a microcosm of a new civil religion taking shape in China — an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to satisfy Chinese people’s search for moral guidelines by supplementing the largely irrelevant ideology of communism with a curated version of the past.…  Seguir leyendo »

Chris McGrath/Getty Images Police watching as people formed a line at a polling station to vote in district council elections, Hong Kong, November 24, 2019

For nearly six months, people around the world have watched the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong with one question in the back of their minds: When will Beijing lose patience and the repression begin? Journalists expecting to cover Tiananmen II flew in for the most promising global story of the year, its allure bolstered by the protesters’ ability to speak English and the easily digestible narrative of David vs. Goliath, democracy vs. authoritarianism, right vs. might.

This perspective was reflected in coverage of this past weekend’s district council elections. Although these usually hinge on intensely local issues, they were pegged as a chance for voters to give a verdict on the protests.…  Seguir leyendo »

CHINA. Beijing. Tiananmen Square. 1989.

Something strange is happening in Xi Jinping’s China. This is supposed to be the perfect dictatorship, the most sustained period of authoritarianism since the Cultural Revolution ended more than forty years ago, a period of such damning disappointment that all but the regime’s most acquiescent apologists have become cynics or critics. And yet the past few months have also seen something potentially more interesting: the most serious critique of the system in more than a decade, led by people inside China who are choosing to speak out now, during the most sensitive season of the most sensitive year in decades.

The movement started quietly enough, with several brilliant essays written by a Chinese academic that drew an attack from his university bosses, which in turn stirred a backlash among Chinese public intellectuals.…  Seguir leyendo »

Demonstrators attend a protest 'For a Decent Slovakia' in Bratislava, Slovakia, on May 4, 2018. - Journalists firings at the public TV and radio broadcaster RTVS, sparked protests across Slovakia again, nine weeks after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee. (Photo by VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP) (Photo credit should read VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty Images)

Thirty miles northeast of the Slovakian capital Bratislava is Veľká Mača, a village-turned-bedroom-community of tightly packed bungalows fanning out from a big Catholic church, a small supermarket, and a smoky pub. In winter, the surrounding fields are dusted with snow, some planted with wheat but many now filled with hangar-like logistic centers for Amazon, DHL, and other markers of economic change.

Nearly a year ago, hired killers drove into this quiet town, broke into a small prefabricated bungalow, and shot dead two young people: the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, an archaeologist at a local research institute.…  Seguir leyendo »

KASGHAR CITY, KASHGAR, XINJIANG, CHINA - 2017/07/08: A Uyghur woman walks pass a statue of Mao Zedong in the People's Park in Kashgar city, northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. (Photo by Guillaume Payen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Last month, I spent several days at the Forbidden City, the gargantuan palace in the middle of Beijing where China’s emperors ruled the land for nearly five hundred years. I was there to attend a conference on religion and power in imperial China, but my thoughts were drawn to more contemporary concerns: the plight of the Uighurs in China’s far western province of Xinjiang, including re-education camps aimed at breaking their faith in Islam.

I was struck by parallels between contemporary and imperial religious policy at the end of the conference, when our hosts took us to parts of the complex that are off-limits to tourists, such as the Hall of Imperial Peace.…  Seguir leyendo »

VCG/VCG via Getty Images Ruins from one of the most significant earthquakes in Chinese history, pictured a month before the tenth anniversary of the earthquake, Beichuan county, Mianyang, Sichuan, China, April 5, 2018

The province of Sichuan is a microcosm of China. Its east is flat, prosperous, and densely settled by ethnic Chinese. Its mountainous west is populated by poorer minorities, but possesses resources that help make the east rich.

In Sichuan, the highlands’ bounty is water and silt, which rush down from the Tibetan Plateau to the plains below through an ingenious set of irrigation waterworks at the town of Dujiangyan. Soon after this system was built, some 2,300 years ago, the intensive agriculture that it made possible turned the region into one of China’s economic dynamos, producing so much wealth that it helped the first emperor of China consolidate numerous fragmented states into one powerful realm.…  Seguir leyendo »

Jason Lee/Reuters Sculptures of Mao Zedong in front of a souvenir plate with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, March 1, 2018

For nearly sixty years since it opened in 1959, the Great Hall of the People has been the public focus of Chinese politics, a monumental granite block that extends 1,200 feet along the west side of Tiananmen Square. It is where the country’s leaders appear in public to display their power: a platform for state banquets, receptions of foreign dignitaries, and symbolic political meetings. It is their throne room, their sacred space. It is the outward manifestation of decisions made in other, darker realms.

That setting made it hard to avoid the imperial parallels in Sunday’s vote to allow Xi Jinping to serve as China’s leader indefinitely.…  Seguir leyendo »

Chairman Mao attending a military review in Beijing, China, 1967

In these pages nearly seven years ago, Timothy Snyder asked the provocative question: Who killed more, Hitler or Stalin? As useful as that exercise in moral rigor was, some think the question itself might have been slightly off. Instead, it should have included a third tyrant of the twentieth century, Chairman Mao. And not just that, but that Mao should have been the hands-down winner, with his ledger easily trumping the European dictators’.

While these questions can devolve into morbid pedantry, they raise moral questions that deserve a fresh look, especially as these months mark the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Mao’s most infamous experiment in social engineering, the Great Leap Forward.…  Seguir leyendo »

AP Video via AP Images. Liu Xiaobo at a park in Beijing, July 24, 2008

For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished. —Confucius, Analects

In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.

One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire.…  Seguir leyendo »

A building covered in posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Shanghai, China, March 26, 2016

Politics is always about pomp and pageantry, but as pure, stultifying ritual few occasions can compare to the convening of the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress, which ended this week. No matter what is happening in China or the world, it always follows the same eye-glazing program—a “work report” that summarizes already-known plans; questionable proposals that are discussed to make it seem that a deliberative body is convening; gatherings of delegations that are unelected and largely powerless; and finally a press conference that is as real as a fight in a kung-fu movie.

And yet this performance is never without meaning.…  Seguir leyendo »

Hundreds of crosses have been removed from churches and buildings across China.

How bad is religious persecution in China?

This is a question I've thought a lot about over the past few years. Since 2010 I've been working on a project documenting a religious revival in China, and seen new churches, temples, and mosques open each year, attracting millions of new worshipers.

But I've also seen how religion is tightly proscribed.

Only five religious groups are allowed to exist in China: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. The government controls the appointment of major religious figures, and decides where places of worship can be built. It tries to influence theology and limits contacts overseas.…  Seguir leyendo »

Dao County, China, 2016. Sim Chi Yin/VII

Tan Hecheng might seem an unlikely person to expose one of the most shocking crimes of the Chinese Communist Party. A congenial sixty-seven-year-old who spent most of his life in southern Hunan province away from the seats of power, Tan is no dissident. In fact, he has spent his career working for official state media and trying to believe in Communism.

But in a meticulously detailed five-hundred-page book released in English this week, he lays out in devastating detail one of the darkest, and least known, episodes in Communist Chinese history: the mass murder of nine thousand Chinese citizens by explicit order of regional Party officials during the height of the Cultural Revolution.…  Seguir leyendo »

Hu Fayun in Wuhan, 2016 / Sim Chi Yin/VII

Over the summer I traveled to Wuhan to continue my series of talks with people about the challenges facing China. Coming here was part of an effort to break out of the black hole of Beijing politics and explore the view from China’s vast hinterland.

Wuhan seemed a logical place to start because it is one of the country’s great inland port cities—it has a population of more than 8 million and is a gateway to the interior. A conglomeration of what were once three cities, Wuhan is at the intersection of two of China’s most important rivers, the Yangtze and the Han.…  Seguir leyendo »